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Dixie Fire Expresses Indian Valley's Truths

Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW 

This post was republished with permission from The Davis Enterprise. You can find the original post here

As the Dixie fire blazed through Greenville, California stripping Indian Valley of its innocence and serenity, even before homes turned to ashes, news reporters recruited locals on social media asking them to share pictures of their beloved homes consumed by flames.

The once unknown and almost invisible dot on the map is now front page of the national news. But make no mistakes, this news coverage is fickle. Despite Plumas County’s longstanding socioeconomic hardships, until the fire, no one heard the townspeople’s cries. As Indian Valley struggles to obtain resources and assistance to aid fire victims and the forest’s open wounds, even now, I don’t think people are really listening. Just like Paradise and so many rural communities struck by natural disasters, I suspect Greenville and its sacred valley will once again be forgotten; quite possibly even before I finish writing this article.

Why did total obliteration have to be the reason for Greenville’s newfound fame? Wasn’t the history, majestic landscape, and smalltown magic important enough to feature?

Now a community once shielded by lush forests, wildlife, and ancestral burial grounds is vulnerable and exposed for the world to see. What happens next depends on how we choose to see the current crises consuming too much of our land and homes.

In 1996 I graduated as Valedictorian from Greenville high School: the only high school located in Greenville, California. I thought my community was the center of the world since the only identity I knew was that of “small town girl.” But as soon as I ventured away from my protective cocoon nestled amongst the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I quickly realized that my community wasn’t the center of the world. In fact, as I traveled first around the state, then country, and finally the world, I was stunned when I realized I had not met anyone who recognized my hometown by name. Only when I described the lakes, snow country, hiking, and fishing could people begin to picture where I grew up. But they still didn’t really understand the people who lived in my hometown or the lifestyle that goes along with living a mountainous, rural, close-knit community.

Indian Valley is part of the Plumas National Forest and is comprised of the historic communities Canyon Dam, Greenville, Indian Falls (All three destroyed by the Dixie Fire), and the remaining towns of Genesee, Crescent Mills, and Taylorsville (source: Indian Valley Chamber of Commerce). The economy of Indian Valley is largely supported by the timber industry and local businesses which have been in families for generations. My parents were born and raised in Indian Valley as were their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. They graduated from Greenville High School just like me---and we even shared some of the same teachers.

My parents built their home on property passed down from generations. I was just a little girl, but I vividly remember when we built the roof. The event was a community celebration. People from all over Indian Valley came and offered labor, resources, and food. This is how many homes were built, as a community, and residents feel a sense of shared ownership over all of the homes in the valley. This is one reason why the loss of a neighbor’s home to fire hurts as deeply as if it were your own.

This sense of community and collective identity is also one of many strengths engrained in all of the residents that will help them rebuild.

I watched my hometown go up in flames on the internet, and I identified the homes, streets, businesses, and sacred lands piece by piece as the fire blew through my past.

I held my breath as the fire approached Greenville High School and tears of sorrow and joy flowed down my face when I saw the building still standing. “Thank you. One memory and legacy are still intact.” I sat with my mother, a fire evacuee, who in the present still lives in Indian Valley. By that time, we were letting go of attachment to her home, also the home with which I was born, because if it survived the fire, this meant a neighbor would have to bear the sacrifice.

The day after the inferno, friends called to check in after viewing the despair on the news.
Their reactions were consistent--

“So, this is where you grew up, huh? But Greenville isn’t your home, right? So, your family is safe and you still have your home?”
I couldn’t answer “yes” or “no” and here is the reason why---

If you live in Indian Valley, you live in one of several tiny mountain communities that are separated by merely a large valley, a few dirt roads, and less than ten miles. In summary the valley is your home, not any particular town. So even though my childhood home is in a nearby town just over the hill from Greenville, and I might add still threatened by fires, my family is not safe because Indian Valley is my family, my home, my community.

We are one.

smaller moms houseAll of us in Indian Valley went to the same schools, played in the same streams, and rode our bikes on the same dirt roads. Not only did I go to Greenville for school but I took piano lessons in Greenville, borrowed books from the public library, saw my doctors, bought my groceries, and even pumped gas for my car there. I had my first kiss in the parking lot in front of the market. Most people in the valley are just like my parents and I: they were born and raised in the valley. Until the Dixie Fire forced people to leave, many residents had never left their homes.
When I graduated from high school and moved out of Indian Valley, I left many loved ones behind. Some of my peers are no longer with us because the economic hardships and lure of substance abuse stole their souls. Others left, went to college, and returned more worldly and appreciative of the opportunities they have to raise their children in such a wonderful community. Still others stayed because they followed in their families’ footsteps and built on past generations. They stayed because every aspect of their history and existence is rooted in the mountains and trees.

Like my mother, I was also raised by a father who made our living as a timber faller (logger). The forest was our livelihood and also our friend. Despite my honest and symbiotic relationship with the forest, I was embarrassed when I went to college to tell my urban peers I grew up in a logging community. They judged my family for destroying trees and harming the environment. They really didn’t understand. The loggers in my hometown not only care about the environment but they care about managing the forests so that we can safely live in a community whose vast pine trees provide both our livelihoods and protection.

I remember when the forest allowed us to cut down Christmas Trees freely and in return, we trimmed her so that she wasn’t tangled, and sick from overgrowth. Summer afternoons were comfortably warm but not windy. I sat on my front porch many afternoons and watched thunder and lightning storms. I even saw fires up in the hills near my home. But I never worried embers would blow over or fire would creep down the hill and destroy my town. Fires were normal and they were vastly different from the types of fires that are overcoming California. Forest fires were even beneficial---nature’s way of completing the cycle of life---death and rebirth. Now the view from my porch is of the forest raging with unpredictable fire which in a winds notice might still swallow the remaining communities of Indian Valley. This fire is far from over. There appears to be no end in sight.

While these historic and often unrecognized communities are raw and exposed---perhaps this is an opportunity to take a look inside instead of watching the dramatic “movie” unfold from outside social media and newspapers. This is our opportunity to really listen and hear what the voices inside the grieving communities are saying. If so much of our earth’s natural relations must be sacrificed, let’s not allow this tragedy to be futile.

Indian Valley is home to generations of Native Americans and their histories, hence the name. When logging flourished in the 1970s and 1980s one of the chief loggers in Indian Valley was a Native American. He blessed the forests and advocated for traditional methods of forest management that honored his heritage and ancestors. I recall a time when I felt and witnessed harmony between people and nature. I also recall when politics and conflict replaced this harmony. Now as I watch acres of natural relations turn to ashes I wonder if the “old” traditional ways are better than all of our science and technology. The “new” ways seem to be disconnected from what is really happening in the forests; especially in a rural mountain community such as Greenville. Maybe it is time we let the forests, ranchers, farmers, and our Native American ancestors teach us. Maybe it is time we listen.

It is easy for people to say, “don’t worry. We are a strong community and you will rebuild.” However, this statement ignores the reality that many people in Indian Valley suffer from poverty, don’t have home insurance, and face ongoing unemployment. Adding one year of Covid shutdowns, the economy is struggling more than ever.

Greenville is the hub of the Indian Valley economy, and in the blink of an eye, fire wiped out all of the businesses. The surrounding communities are not sustainable without each other. Each community brings its strengths and the synergy among all of them is what makes life work. Many business owners are retirement age and the thought of rebuilding seems impossible. Not to mention, Plumas County has historically been deprived of resources. Mental health and substance abuse services along with funding for other social services have been nonexistent or grossly subpar for decades.

Before a community can rebuild, the systems that were broken prior to any tragedy have to be repaired.

The dreadful day when the Dixie Fire took hold of Indian Valley, while I imagined no longer being able to sit on my front porch overlooking Mt. Hough, drenched in sunlight, and intoxicated by the fresh mountain air, I was also blanketed by a lifetime of relationships. A best friend from high school and even a first crush with whom I haven’t seen for decades called me to see if my family needed help safely evacuating. While they rushed to collect their possessions and evacuate themselves, amid the chaos, they held my hand. The bonds we share from living in that valley withstand the test of time and certainly fire. We will always cling to the comforts of the old and familiar just like we did when we were innocent children running up and down the mountains and jumping in the pine needles.

For the first time many residents of Indian Valley are dispersed across the country and not in physical proximity to their roots, friends, and ancestors resting in the forests and cemeteries. Yet despite this dispersal and unfamiliar territory, we still possess the one thing fire cannot touch. We all learned from the same school teachers, churches, community members, and natural relations everything we need to prepare for and venture into a brave new world. Maybe it is time for us to disperse and sprinkle our Indian Valley magic throughout the rest of the world.
Meanwhile I watch my mom grieve as she realizes for the first time in her life, she might have to venture into the big world just as I did twenty years ago and start a new life. I cannot help but feel worried. I was twenty and she is seventy-two.

If you wish to donate to the communities affected by the Dixie Fire and the programs that are providing assistance, please go to